McCullough angry, ready to fight back

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Deland McCullough has skipped self-pity and gone right to rage. If the Cincinnati Bengals' derailed running back is to get back on track, there should be no shortage of steam.

''Whenever I've been hurt, it just made me mad,'' McCullough said Saturday afternoon. ''I was always somebody who was real upset to miss practice. I would fight back.''

Even while experiencing excruciating pain Friday night, the rookie from Miami University could feel his anger rising. A wrecked right knee would give people one more reason to doubt him. He had come too far and turned too many heads to be starting all over again from scratch.

It made his blood boil to think about it, which in turn makes his comeback that much more plausible. The running back who must rehabilitate a catastrophic knee injury has a much better chance if he is resolved rather than resigned. McCullough has a lot of lonely hours of rehab ahead, and, says trainer Paul Sparling, ''the full shock hasn't hit him yet.''

''The best thing I ever heard on that subject was what Mike Brown told Ki-Jana (Carter) last year,'' Bengals coach Dave Shula said. ''He said, 'Don't look at this as the first day of your injury, look at it as the first day of your recovery.' You focus on getting back. You don't focus on woe-is-me.''

So close, so far away

Had he been so inclined, Deland McCullough could have found several reasons to feel sorry for himself Saturday. He had finished the preseason as the Bengals' leading rusher - 201 yards on 50 carries - but constrained by crutches.

McCullough's injuries are so extensive - a torn anterior cruciate ligament, a torn medial collateral ligament and torn cartilage - that he will surely miss the entire 1996 season.

If he is not entirely finished as a football player, he may be hard-pressed to reprise the moves he mastered at Miami.

This is a low-down, dirty shame. McCullough had chased his dream till it was nearly caught, only to be felled by a freak injury three minutes from the finish of the Bengals' last preseason game. Detroit linebacker Stephen Boyd struck McCullough's knee helmet-first on a first-down screen pass, and the running back would leave the field on the back of a cart.

''I was down a little bit after it happened,'' he said, ''but after that I got angry and got determined that I'm going to beat this and come back and show I can still play.''

Deland McCullough is fueled by defiance. He has spent his football career with a chip on his shoulder pads, and for good reason.

Despite leading Miami in rushing four straight seasons, McCullough was ignored during the NFL draft. He joined the Bengals as a free agent with an attitude.

''I think I came in here very unheralded,'' McCullough said. ''I had four good years at Miami, and it was just overlooked. They made it seem that I was just an average back.'' subhed At least he proved himself

At least he proved himself

McCullough suffered from the stigma attached to Mid-American Conference players and from the reputation of being a step slow.

It didn't seem to register that he had made more yards against Michigan than did Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George. The prevailing opinion among professional scouts was that in the NFL, McCullough would be out of his league.

''All my life people always told me what I couldn't do,'' he said. ''They said, 'You're not big enough. You're not fast enough.' In college, I think a lot of people thought I got the yards I got because of how much I carried the ball.

''But I've played against some of these other backs. When some of them got drafted, it was like a slap in the face to me.''

McCullough's solace is that he was able to prove himself before he got hurt. He was finding daylight when Ki-Jana Carter could only discover dead ends. He made his coaches wonder if they hadn't missed something.

''I don't think it was all for naught,'' he said. ''I think I made a good impression here.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Aug. 25, 1996.